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Trump’s defense spending critiques – Valid concerns or political rhetoric? Stephen Nagy in the Japan Times

U.S. allies contribute to peace and security through means other than just military might.

This article originally appeared in the Japan Times.

By Stephen Nagy, February 21, 2024

Most things Donald Trump says on the election trail are filled with exaggeration and an absence of any granular understanding of the issue at hand.

However, when commenting on allies’ defense spending not meeting pledges, his incendiary comments have a certain warped truth about the reality of U.S. relations with partners and defense spending inequality.

The former U.S. president said allies need to pay more for defense last week and that the U.S. should not defend countries that do not live up to their military spending obligations.

For U.S. allies including Japan, South Korea, Canada and NATO members, it is a statement of the realities of the U.S. under any president. America can no longer shoulder the lion’s share of the security burden for its friends in an increasingly unstable global security environment.

This is acutely true today. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which estimates the full range of military spending by country beyond official figures, China’s military spending was at $292 billion in 2022. Russia continues its war on Ukraine with measurable success. North Korea continues its missile development and provocations and the Middle East is on the edge of a regional crisis thanks to Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel, and Tel Aviv’s subsequent retaliation, allegedly killing more than 28,000 Palestinians.

At a talk at the International Christian University in early February, Ukrainian Ambassador to Japan Sergiy Korsunsky called these challenges the “cartel of chaos” in which Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and Hamas are promoting global chaos to achieve their long-term strategic objectives. They are striving to weaken the U.S., the West and post WWII international institutions that attempt to promote a rules-based order that limits the power of states, holds leaders accountable for violations of international law.

It is in the national interests of Japan and other allies of the U.S. to see that the so-called cartel of chaos is not successful and that they shoulder a greater burden of the defense and security costs — so in that sense, Trump has a point.

But Trump fails to recognize how allies contribute to American interests and peace and security through other means.

Although Japan has not been able to meet the goal of spending 2% of gross domestic product for defense, the country is effectively doubling its annual defense spending, which is “supported by the people because we see the complexities and the difficulties in the security situation surrounding Japan” said Tokyo’s ambassador to Ottawa, Kanji Yamanouchi, while speaking in front of the Canada-China Committee on the People’s Republic of China.

Tokyo has made tremendous efforts through the new National Security Strategy and associated documents to strive for greater spending, with the aim of increasing military defense funding to 2.2% by 2027.

Among NATO members, there is a huge disparity between countries that go beyond the 2% of GDP spending on defense, such as Poland (3.09%), Greece (3.01%) and Hungary (2.74%) and those delinquent, serial military underspenders, such as France (1.9%), Germany (1.54%) and Canada (1.3%).

Where Trump is seriously misinformed or underinformed is the other areas in which allies and friends of the U.S. contribute to security through investing in diplomacy, infrastructure and connectivity development.

For example, at the time of writing this essay, the author is in Ghana recruiting mid-level public servants for graduate programs in Japan. These are long-term programs where Japan brings public servants from developing countries to the country to obtain a master’s degree in public policy or international relations, experience what is like to live here and become what we call “Japan watchers.”

When they return to their country, they are usually promoted and act as conduits to connect Japan to the country in question. These relationships are used to create mutual understanding and strategic views of security development and infrastructure challenges in the broader Indo-Pacific region.

As one of the major financiers in terms of infrastructure and connectivity in places like Southeast Asia and South Asia, Japan, through building roads, bridges and ports, is creating more strategic autonomy for the economies of the regions. These contributions positively impact peace and stability by creating stronger and more stable integrated economies that have more strategic autonomy to push back against the geoeconomic policies of China.

Trump mistakenly dismisses how countries engage in contributing to security within the region outside the military domain and military spending.

South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Canada and many European countries are actively involved in development initiatives within the region to create more economic dynamism, higher quality public servants and shared norms about a rules-based order.

These are incredibly important contributions to peace and security and while they don’t contribute to the number of ships and tanks within the region, there are important elements of diplomacy and security that add value to the military footprint that the United States provides.

That said, we should also note that countries like Japan are actively enhancing U.S. security in the region through its strategic partnerships with Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Through these strategic partnerships, Japan is providing maritime domain awareness capabilities to friends like Vietnam, coast guard vessels to others to enhance their domestic ability to deal with security challenges. It also engages in interoperability training and boosting human capital within the region through the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to engage in training activities.

We’ve also seen Japan invest in reciprocal access agreements with Australia and the U.K. These are meant to bolster security cooperation, develop shared norms and to distribute resources within the region such that if there was ever a conflict, Japan would be able to rely on these partners more seamlessly.

As we think about this idea of security, defense spending is of course important and free riders continue to demonstrate a certain disregard for the contributions that the U.S. makes to the region.

The peace and prosperity that has been brought to the Indo-Pacific region has been mostly based on cooperation with alliance partnerships, such as the Japan-U.S. or South Korea-U.S. alliance and the Taiwan Relations Act. This cooperation provides elements of predictability, stability and security guarantees that have allowed trade to flourish and has helped maintain stable sea lanes of communication that have contributed to shaping the region in ways that favor transparency, the rule-of-law and open markets.

As allies of the United States reflect upon Trump’s comments, they will need to be better advocates of their positions of increased spending within the Indo-Pacific region. They should also be keenly aware that a Biden administration will make similar yet more eloquently articulated demands.

If Trump is elected again, it will be prudent that countries like Japan are at the forefront and very deliberate in how they talk about their contributions that benefit the Indo-Pacific. They will also need to focus on how they have positively impacted U.S. security since the 1990s through a process of incremental shifts in resources, personnel, tactics and strategic thinking about the Indo-Pacific region while retaining autonomy based on strong economic partnerships.

Source: The Japan Times

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